The humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico wrought by Hurricane Maria has renewed attention on a 97-year-old law enacted by the U.S. Congress, in part to defend America against German U-boats.

The U.S. government should seize the opportunity to not only suspend immediately the antiquated Merchant Marine Act of 1920 to help Puerto Rico, but to also consider granting permanent exemptions to states like Hawaii.

The Jones Act, as it is commonly called, requires that any cargo shipped between domestic ports be aboard U.S.-built and U.S.-owned vessels with at least 75 percent American crews.

The legislation, as Civil Beat reported in its series about why it costs so much to live in Hawaii, was enacted “to bolster American shipbuilding, protect the jobs of merchant mariners and guarantee that federal authorities could requisition a Merchant Marine fleet in case of an emergency.”

Satellite imagery of Hurricane Maria hitting Puerto Rico on Sept. 20. The island has been nearly decimated, yet the Trump administration won’t lift maritime restrictions to help storm victims. Antti Lipponen / MODIS / Terra satellite image

It came not long after the end of World War I when, as a former New York state assemblyman explained in a New York Times opinion piece this week, “America was worried about German U-boats, which had sunk nearly 5,000 ships during the war.”

And yet, as the former assemblyman Nelson A. Denis explained, “Almost a century later, there are no U-boats lurking off the coast of Puerto Rico. The Jones Act has outlived its original intent, yet it is strangling the island’s economy.”

“At its core, the Jones Act is a form of protectionism.” — Tax analyst Andrew Wilford

Many think it hurts Hawaii, too. 

But before we get to that, let’s address what needs to be done now for Puerto Rico, an island with a population larger than 21 states and which may one day become the 51st state.

Fortunately, President Donald Trump seems to have come to understand that the people of Puerto Rico are American citizens and that they need more of our help. Most people on the island still had no power as of Tuesday and more than 50 percent of homes have no drinking water. The devastation is described by first responders as apocalyptic.

After loads of criticism that his response to this crisis has been far less than the administration’s proactive posture when it came to storm damage in Texas and Florida, Trump says he will visit Puerto Rico next week. The federal government has also ramped up its relief efforts, which includes deploying the USNS Comfort hospital ship.

But more needs to be done.

Let’s Help Puerto Rico

What Trump has not done — but should do — is temporarily set aside Jones Act restrictions on foreign ships so they can transport cargo.

A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said “officials believe there is sufficient capacity of U.S.-flagged vessels to move goods to Puerto Rico.”

And yet, DHS twice waived Jones Act mandates earlier this month in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. It was done to allow oil and gas operators “to use often cheaper, tax-free, or more readily available foreign-flagged vessels.”

Cleaning up in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico. Like the island, Hawaii is also vulnerable to powerful storms and also subject to Jones Act restrictions. Puerto Rico National Guard

But on Tuesday the administration denied a request from several members of Congress to waive shipping restrictions for Puerto Rico. That is a mistake.

Now, let’s talk about possible long-term solutions.

Defenders of the Jones Act argue that eliminating domestic maritime regulations could ruin U.S. commercial shipyards, kill hundreds of thousands of middle-class jobs, unsettle the cargo transport industry and undermine national security.

Opponents say the act is the main reason it is so expensive in the islands, given that nearly all food, fuel and other consumer goods come to Hawaii on container ships. They also argue that special interests are profiting by keeping the Jones Act in place.

But recent events make clear it is time to review the legislation.

Matson Shipping containers ship sand island1. 17 april 2017
Matson Shipping container vessels in Honolulu Harbor. Hawaii’s long distance from the mainland means most goods have to be shipped here. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

Denis, the former New York assemblyman, said that thanks to the law, “the price of goods (in Puerto Rico) from the United States mainland is at least double that in neighboring islands, including the United States Virgin Islands, which are not covered by the Jones Act.”

Denis calls the Jones Act “a shakedown, a mob protection racket, with Puerto Rico a captive market.”

Writing in The Hill this week, an associate policy analyst at the National Taxpayers Union Foundation called the Jones Act “an archaic, 100-year old law that stays around solely because it benefits a small group of politically well-connected private shipbuilders.”

The analyst, Andrew Wilford, wrote, “At its core, the Jones Act is a form of protectionism.”

President Trump gets his second briefing on hurricane damage in Puerto Rico. The White House

Henry Grabar, a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox, said the DHS waivers are “a tacit acknowledgment” of the unreasonable costs of the Jones Act. Republicans like Sen. John McCain of Arizona (he’s one of the lawmakers asking Trump to waive the Jones Act for Puerto Rico) have called for permanent exemptions.

Civil Beat’s own research on the Jones Act showed that opinions vary on the legislation’s impact on Hawaii. While it would be nice to have a definitive study of how much the act costs local taxpayers and businesses, we did report that shipping increases our overall cost of living in the islands by less than 7.5 percent.

We also reported that the state’s congressional delegation in Washington, D.C., “enjoys outsized donations from maritime lobbyists,” even though several members told Civil Beat it did not affect their support for the Jones Act.

Indeed, the local folks most often calling for repeal of the act have usually been conservative politicians such as Charles Djou and Sam Slom, or Kelii Akina of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

Interestingly, a fresh Reddit thread has commentators speculating whether the Jones Act would be waived if Hawaii were to be hit by a natural disaster. Some said it would happen because of our military basis and wealthy citizens.

That’s cynical, but not totally off the mark.

It’s time to reconsider the usefulness of the legislation, to either establish permanent exemptions for territories like Puerto Rico and states like Hawaii, or to repeal it altogether.

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